How does Baz Luhrmann keep the spirit of Shakespearian theatre alive in his interpretation of Romeo and Juliet?

How does Baz Luhrmann keep the spirit of
Shakespearian theatre alive in his interpretation of
Romeo and Juliet?


Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, Romeo + Juliet, posses an extensive range of techniques to communicate the spirit of Elizabethan theatre in contemporary society. Modern elements include contemporary slang and soundtrack, modernized aspects of fate, language devices, Religious imagery and symbolism, distinct camera angles to illuminate the Elizabethan dialogue, advanced weaponry and duplicates of two office buildings to represent the opposing Montague’s and Capulet’s. These components are merged almost immaculately into the Traditional dialogue so modern viewers can relate while the spirit of Shakespearean theatre remains present in Luhrmann’s adaption.

Australian director, Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of William Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, posses an extensive array of techniques to convey the spirit of Elizabethan theatre in contemporary society. Luhrmann’s adaption is a truculently modern and dynamic representation of Shakespeare’s pristine themes and conceptions. Modern elements are merged almost impeccably into the Elizabethan dialogue so the contemporary viewers can associate, while the vitality of Shakespeare’s work is still present. These elements include the retainment of the conventional language along with the incorporation of modern slang and soundtrack to help further illuminate the film and improve viewers understanding of the Elizabethan dialogue. Shakespeare’s original ideas of fate being a higher authority and inevitable destiny for Romeo and Juliet are conveyed through modernised aspects of society, such as the prologue, represented through a 1990s television set, Mercutio explaining the effects of dreams and Romeo consumes ecstasy which leads to the meeting of the two enthusiasts. Language devices such motifs relating to water and metaphors comparing light and darkness. Religious imagery and symbolism being applied within the film to represent their Catholic faith, through stigmata, statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ and each character bearing a religious symbol of their own, a crucifix, a rosary around their neck or a hairstyle to reveal a hidden cross. Expertly transforming the original location that the play was traditionally performed within, into a contemporary setting. Incorporating ideas of character gender roles reflecting Elizabethan stereotypes of men and women by cross-dressing male actors. The Utilisation of distinct camera angles to illuminate the traditional Elizabethan language and intensify confrontations between Montague’s and Capulet’s. The guns and advanced weaponry are inscribed with names such as “longsword” or “dagger” so when asked “to draw thy sword” they stay intelligently true to the Shakespearean language. The two families of exact stature and dignity are represented through two replicas of a corporate office building illustrating that they have the same wealth, but are two names at enmity with each other. The themes utilised in the film correspond to traditional themes. However new ideas such as drugs, firearms and pop culture imagery and have been introduced to reflect the society that the film was produced in.

Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet features Shakespeare’s traditional dialogue accompanying modern slang, mixing a historical triumph with contemporary perspectives of teenage love. While the cinematic adaption retains the conventional Shakespearian language, Luhrmann has shortened the script to maintain a reasonable two hour time frame. In addition, the adaption has no appearance of an Italian or English accent to fit the original text and setting in which Shakespeare wrote for the characters. Where Luhrmann’s film successes, however, is with its use of music. The musical soundtrack is what distinguishes Luhrmann’s film as the contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet. From radio head’s Talkshow Host to Young Hearts Run Free by Kym Mazelle, the use of songs both intensifies and illuminates the passion between Romeo and Juliet while capturing the spirit of teenage love in modern-day society and intensifies fight scenes between the Montague’s and Capulet’s is what makes this modernised adaptation thrive. The principal concept of the soundtrack is to underline significant moments in the development of the plot and character connections. By using traditional Elizabethan dialogue, modern slang and a contemporary musical soundtrack, Luhrmann has created a thriving interpretation of Romeo + Juliet, intensifying the relationship between the two protagonists and their families while preserving the spirit of Elizabethan dialogue within the film.

During the English Renaissance, society perceived fate as the will of God, themes and ideas of this period in which Shakespeare wrote are reflected in his play, Romeo and Juliet. Fate is an idea that is intertwined throughout the text written by Shakespeare. It is essentially pointing out that every action we make, is at the mercy of fate, and everything we do to counteract it, fate still holds the final judgement over our lives. This concept is prevalent in cinematic codes written into Luhrmann’s visual representation of the Shakespearean love story. Shakespeare uses an array of techniques to convey fate, Luhrmann converts these elements into modernised exemplars, starting with the prologue and the Capulet servant delivering the invitee list to the feast, both in which he cleverly transformed into a late 1990s television set giving adolescent and teen viewers a better understanding of the prologue and how fate is communicated through the Capulet servant who is illiterate. The elimination of Friar John for a courier post system, in which Friar Lawrence sends his message to Romeo informing him of his master plan. The distribution of the message is an example of fate as it arrives while Romeo is inaccessible, the courier leaves a note saying “we called” which is never received and left behind while Balthasar arrives, announces the word of Juliet’s death and advances towards Verona with Romeo. Before the Capulet feast, Romeo explains to his accomplices about a dream he had the night before “I fear too early, for my mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars, shall bitterly begin his fearful date”. Romeo takes ecstasy that Mercutio gave him, and they proceed to the Capulet feast. The effects of the drug and the party together overwhelm Romeo, who goes to the restroom to clear his head. While admiring an aquarium, he sees Juliet on the other side, and the two instantly fall in love. The application of ecstasy in Luhrmann’s interpretation is a critical component of the film as it ensures that Romeo and Juliet will meet and the series of events after will subsequently unfold. The most crucial event in which Luhrmann expresses fate is when Romeo drinks the vile filled with poison, to then see that Juliet has awakened. In the original script Romeo dies believing that Juliet is dead. Luhrmann’s take on fate has allowed the two lovers to be with one another for the last time. Fate is perhaps showing sympathy here. Juliet then proceeds to take Romeo’s gun and shoot herself in the temple.

The utilisation of Water, in Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic adaption, is a recurring motif referring to the traditional script of Romeo and Juliet, which involves Romeo referring to himself as a vessel at sea multiple times. Baz Luhrmann is communicating the idea of water from the original play and carrying it out in his interpretation. Close to the start of the film, Juliet is presented with her whole face inundated with water. Further along in the movie, Romeo appears in a comparable position, where he plans to clear his mind through dunking his head into an adjacent sink at Capulets feast. Abandoning his knight’s mask Romeo proceeds to the luminous fishbowl where the two protagonists first catch each other’s eye. Soon after Capulet’s feast concludes, Romeo finds himself looking for Juliet at Capulet’s pool. At this point in the film, the water is pure and clear. However, as the film advances, the water ends up being deteriorated. An example of this being the confrontation between Romeo, Tybalt and Mercutio, after Tybalt murders Mercutio, Romeo slaughters Tybalt, who falls into the water, the blood flows through the water making it contaminated. After Tybalt’s demise, everything that the water represented between the two protagonists has vanished. By using water as a representation and connection to the traditional script, Luhrmann elevates the heightened idealism of Romeo and Juliet’s passion in a manner which would have been apprehended by both contemporary and Elizabethan audiences and helped viewers to further comprehend the events of the plot.

Shakespeare’s literature includes many representations of powerful language devices, one of which is a metaphor. An illustration of a metaphor that is both verbal and visual in the play is the contrast between light and dark. The text is permeated with representations of day and night. Because this contrast does not have a particular metaphoric meaning, light is not always sufficient and dark not consistently immoral. One example of this is Romeo’s soliloquy on the sun and the moon during the balcony scene when Juliet is metaphorically expressed as the sun banishing the “envious moon” and changing night into day. In Luhrmann’s film Romeo + Juliet, concepts of light and darkness repeat throughout the film, two examples of which that illustrate visual metaphors are Juliet as a rising sun out the of the night and the perception of Romeo and Juliet’s love as a blinding flash of lightning. The use of metaphors and language devices in literature are frequently expanded throughout cinematic adaptions by the use of visual representations that reinforce them, one of which would be the hurricane storm that resembled after Mercutio was slain by Tybalt and anathematised a plague on both the house of Montague and Capulet. We can presume that this a performance of an augmented language device such as pathetic fallacy. The use of literary devices within the text and film emphasise an idea to the reader through visual symbols that strengthen the dialogue.

The Elizabethan era, during which Shakespeare lived and wrote had no separation between church and state. The domination of The Roman Catholic Church reflects Shakespeare’s, Romeo and Juliet through extract’s of the text referring to God as the authoritative figure over the fate of the characters. Baz Luhrmann incorporates the use of religious imagery and symbols into his cinematic adaption of the play by showing numerous spiritual indications such as statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. The opening scene has many religious symbols alone starting with a sequence of crash zooms on a figure of Jesus Christ placed on the street between the two families corporations, the Montague town automobile is trimmed with rosary beads, a crucifix and other religious imagery, Tybalt uncovers his coat to reveal a scarlet garment imprinted with Jesus Christ’s picture and once the gunfight begins, religious iconography is shown embellished on weapons, boots, garments and other attire belonging to the characters. These sacred symbols relate back to English Renaissance religious concepts reflected in Shakespeare’s words. Further along in the play at Capulet’s feast, the costumes worn by the characters may be symbols relating back to how society perceived religion in Elizabethan England. Romeo and Juliet’s knight and angel costumes represent virtue while Tybalt is shown in a devil costume. It was essential for Baz Luhrmann to incorporate religious imagery into his modernised interpretation as in contemporary society there is a separation between church and state, it gives viewers a more advanced understanding of the play and its original Elizabethan setting.

Used by the Catholic church, stigmata is a phrase used to describe marks, sores or sensations of pain in locations on the body associated with the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, such as the hands, feet and wrists. Luhrmann incorporates this aspect into his adaption of Romeo and Juliet by featuring characters with lines of stigmata displayed across the sides of their faces. We can presume that Luhrmann is demonstrating stigmata as both Romeo and Tybalt were shown with streaks of blood on their faces during the scene where Romeo slaughtered Tybalt. The significant use of stigmata makes references to the religion of the characters and crucifixion of Jesus Christ implying that this is a representation of stigmata. During the English Renaissance, Religion was a significant component of civilisation, by adopting stigmata within his adaption, Baz Luhrmann is incorporating a fundamental component of Elizabethan religion as the characters in Shakespeare’s, Romeo and Juliet are highly passionate about their faith.

Baz Luhrmann’s textual adaption utilises smart techniques in transforming traditional aspects of the play into a contemporary setting. For example, the play is set in the Italian city of Verona. However, the setting of Luhrmann’s film adaption is the post-modern seaside, Verona beach. This seemingly different approach makes the play appeal more to modern teenage audiences. Furthermore, the application of the stage at the beach makes references to the traditional structure where the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet was initially performed and replaces the sycamore grove. Luhrmann clearly distinguishes the downtown area from the beach, with the downtown area being the place of war and feud and the beach for peace and love. By filming in Mexico City and Miami beach, Luhrmann has chosen a more appropriate setting for his modernised interpretation of the play, as these locations are known for their pop culture imagery and drugs. Whereas filming in Verona, Italy would be an unfitting location since it is not the former violent city it once was, when chosen to be the location in Romeo and Juliet.

In Elizabethan theatre, male actors would play the female roles. Although Shakespeare’s play reflects Elizabethan England stereotypes of men and women and their status and responsibilities in society, he adjusts and debates the controversy of those expectations. During the English Renaissance, Women were expected to assume a passive role in society. For instance, at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet when Sampson and Gregory, two servants to Capulet, are walking along the streets of Verona talking about women inappropriately. Sampson remarks “And therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall; therefore I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall”. This extract is a thriving example of stereotypical English Renaissance thinking, which women are weaker physically, emotionally, intellectually and morally, that they only exist for male pleasure and sexual gratification. Baz Luhrmann has incorporated ideas reflecting Elizabethan stereotypes into his adaption of the play by cross-dressing male actors. A case of this would be Mercutio wearing a white wig and coordinating sequin top and shorts posing as a female amid the Capulet masquerade feast. Luhrmann formulates a connection between contemporary society and Elizabethan England through cross-dressing Mercutio as female concerning the occasion of the Capulet feast.

Baz Luhrmann uses an array of distinct camera angles to illuminate the traditional Elizabethan language further. He uses lighting through water when Romeo and Juliet first see each other through the luminous fish tank at the Capulet mansion, and they meet again underwater in a pool. Furthermore, the film uses rapid zooming to intensify fight scenes and dramatise fighting between members of the two families. However, when concerning religious imagery, Luhrmann, uses camera angles to intensify the domination of religious statues such as Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.

The Replacement of original weaponry described in the script for modernised firearms belonging to the Montague and Capulet’s were shown engraved with titles such as “longsword” and “dagger” to correspond to the Elizabethan dialogue. However, the wording does not differ from the conventional Shakespearean writing, keeping “swords” instead of “guns”, demonstrating how the traditional text has been manipulated in a way that remains connected to a contemporary setting. Additionally, the firearms are branded with the word “sword”, relating Shakespeare’s timeless narrative to the modern day in an interesting direction.

In the original content, the Montagues and Capulets are depicted as “two families both alike in dignity” Luhrmann’s adaption reflects the traditional text as the two families are represented through twin, corporate office skyscrapers bearing the names Montague and Capulet. Henceforth, we can see that these two families oppose each other and dominate Verona beach from the placement of their foundations. Furthermore, the towers also convey their high status in society; they are both wealthy and influential families. Luhrmann used fire as a representation of the active hatred between the Montague’s and Capulet’s exhibiting the ancient feud between the two families, through a way that two competing businesses may oppose one another.

Therefore, Baz Luhrmann uses various effective techniques to capture the spirit of Elizabethan theatre in his adaption of the traditional script and setting. Luhrmann successfully represents Shakespeare’s unique themes and ideas as determined firstly by the fact that Luhrmann has utilised all of the Elizabethan dialogue and produced it into a contemporary setting, but he has also updated Shakespeare’s idea of fate in a modernised way while keeping the principle concepts intact. Henceforth, Luhrmann has exceeded the text with his adaption through emphasising primary elements of the traditional literature, however, William Shakespeare is often attributed for having a significant influence on language, literature, theatre, and other aspects of culture. With only insignificant modifications to some of the characters names and what families they belong to, overall the plot of the film remains faithful to the traditional story.





5 Replies to “How does Baz Luhrmann keep the spirit of Shakespearian theatre alive in his interpretation of Romeo and Juliet?”

  1. Reading: 7B – You show a confident command of the nuances of Shakespeare’s text, combining a detailed understanding of the themes and language effects with a knowledge of the play’s original context alongside a contemporary reading
    Writing: 7B – Your writing is fluent and confident. A complex array of carefully-selected ideas are well-organised and supported with detailed evidence. The more sophisticated ideas are conveyed with clarity that often commands attention. At times it could be argued that your word choice could be so complex that it might interfere with your reader’s understanding, but this is a matter of taste to some extent. As long as your reader knows what truculent means, they should be ok.
    Viewing: 7B – Your appreciation of the various visual effects you identify in the film are explored in relation to they way these are employed to support the dual intentions of Shakespeare and Baz Luhrmann with detail and insight.

    I’d love to sit down with you, and this essay, and discuss the ideas you’ve brought up – like stigmata – and explore how far we might take those references of Bad Luhrmann’s making. For example: is he saying that Romeo and Tybalt are dying for the good of humanity. Maybe so!

Respond now!